"I hate Jazz" - What Classical Musicians can learn from La La Land
Friends of mine know that my affinity for the film La La Land is no secret and no joke- I love that movie. Granted, I have heard some justifiable and understandable critiques (nothing is perfect), but I continue to admire it, first and foremost, because embedded in this example of escapism is an unflinching, eloquent, and unpretentious discussion about how we should share art with the world.
Working in classical music, it can be quite annoying to hear little mention of classical music from the media, except for an occasional piece about its impending death. Well, though its death has been forecast for decades, it hasn’t met the grim reaper quite yet, and I don’t think it will. That’s not to say that classical music is totally off of life support - as an institution and industry, it has problems which must be fixed.
Classical music’s biggest problem, particularly in the United States, is reaching and enticing new audiences to attend performances and develop an affinity for the music. To be clear: Ours is a public relations problem, not a content problem, created by pressure from a certain small group of elitist classical music enthusiasts who spurn most attempts and endeavors to connect young generations with this art-form. The defense of these few, yet vocal, elitist fans of classical music is that attempting to reach new audiences will require artists/promoters to dilute the quality of the music-making. What a bunch of crap.
Far too many of these pretentious and elitist classical music lovers end-up serving on boards and in positions of authority within the industry. Their pessimism towards the idea of welcoming new, less indoctrinated listeners often requires classical music organizations to take a marketing strategy of "Classical music is divine, and the listeners will come to us." Even if that's not said, it can be sensed in so much of the marketing material released by organizations around the USA.
Classical music is amazing. New audiences will seek it out, but only if we invite them to experience it and find new ways of introducing new audiences to classical music. And there's only one way to do that. We have to show the world that classical music is relevant and relatable to everyone and anyone.
In a short but powerful scene from La La Land, Ryan Gosling’s character (Seb) touches on this problem, and the fix that is necessary.
For those who have not had the opportunity to see the film, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are fun-loving millennials with their own artistic talent, passion, and ambition for overlooked art from a bygone era. This film follows Mia and Seb from their first coincidental encounters, through their entire relationship together. They support each other in their artistic beliefs and aspirations, and (spoiler) both end up succeeding.
OK – full disclosure: When the scene I am about to describe occurred during my first viewing of this film, my mouth was hanging wide open in shock. It seemed then, and after countless more viewings, still seems to be a verbatim copy of discussions I have had with friends and family on countless occasions, except rather than discussing jazz music as Seb does in the film, classical music is my focal point. Even my wife noticed! When she heard Seb's dialogue in this scene, she turned to me in the movie theatre and whispered, “Is that you?”
The idea of context is the important takeaway here. Today, companies spend so much effort to provide us with context for the things they want to sell us, and thus, for many things we enjoy. Knowledge of or experience with a product fuels our desire to seek that product out, and in many cases, heightens our enjoyment of the product. This fact fuels and energizes corporate marketing strategies in today's world, allowing companies to create a certain narrative around a product or service which makes it more desirable to consumers.
We are so used to being inundated with this strategy that we barely recognize these efforts and the power they have over us. Though often exploited by major companies to sell-us things we don't need, this strategy can also be used for good.
In the realm of classical music we need to get better at helping create this context, exposition and narrative for both new and returning audiences. Born from our passion and curiosity, creating context and exposition for our art is what classical music lovers do for ourselves each time we hear a new piece, or practice, or rehearse, or perform. We have to find a way to use our passion to fuel the passion and curiosity of others - giving new and returning audiences alike a richer context with which to experience classical music.
This short scene from this great film details a perfect example of how we can do just that - create a long overdue change of tone which could speak to a whole new generation of listeners. In the moment above, Seb gives us a peek of what is to come. He defines jazz as something not born out of intellectualism, but instead out of a deep-seated human desire and need to experience creativity. Classical music is born from that same human fire and necessity as jazz, but simply speaks a different musical dialect.
Shirking the primal, instinctual, humanistic qualities of classical music, or sacrificing its depth and quality for any purpose, does a disservice to the music, and alienates new audiences seeking to experience the art-form. Such whitewashing happens in any every-form, and every genre of music:
In pursuit of a better public discourse on classical music, we have to be ready for the "Kenny G" conversation - the moment when someone who "does not like" classical music voices and confronts their often unsatisfactory experiences with classical music. I have found that most people who "do not like classical music" are unknowingly saying that they do not like poor quality or uninspiring or shallow classical music.
Like with jazz, the general public most frequently encounters poor representations of classical music. Think about how classical music is played and portrayed in pop culture: background music in film/tv/parties; as a comedic tool to make fun of pretentious people; or "hold" music when you call a utility company. Because of this, the quality of the classical music being featured is often sacrificed because its more affordable, or because its not important to the situation for the performance being featured to be good.
Because of this, many people associate classical music as functional: that classical music is not another kind of amazing music to enjoy, but instead it exists to represent something or serve as background sound.
Seb's raw, passionate approach to describing music is genius. It is exactly what we need to employ when talking about classical music.
All too often, our approach to talking about classical music is too intellectual for many listeners. If we are to communicate the intensity and emotion which is behind all meaningful classical music/musicmaking, we need to find a way to crack-open the intellectual and analytical shell of classical music and share the incredible, entertaining, and moving experiences within. Of course we shouldn't shy away from academic study. But no one falls in love with classical music history before they first fall in love with classical music. So why should our attempts at classical music outreach be so focused on pre-concert lectures and other forms of academic study?
New listeners flock to classical music once they realize that, though there are many kinds of fantastic music in the world, classical music is uniquely suited to express certain things about the human experience.
Classical music can be sexy, spontaneous, funny, sad, moving, inspirational, hilarious - the list goes on. In fact, I think that classical music is better suited than any other genre to help accompany and illustrate every aspect of the human experience. Classical music takes expression a step farther- catapulting the listener on a journey of human emotion, sentiment, and memory. And because classical music is such a fresh sound, unlike all other kinds of music being written today, it provides a blank canvas upon which each audience member can import their own life experience.
Classical music all to often comes off as an objective and unmovable force which is ancient and unrelatable.
But classical music is actually deeply personal, relevant, and constantly changing with the new, exciting, and fresh artistic approach of today's classical musicians. Beethoven's music performed and heard today is just as relevant as Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Childilsh Gambino. It's just different.
And this final moment from the scene illustrates the solution: that we, the current generation of classical music artists and administrators have to joyfully, comically, and passionately share classical music with the world.
We can't just say that the music is "wonderful", because even if returning audiences feel that way, new audiences don't. Instead, we have to show why classical music is so wonderful and relatable. We have to create and share impassioned and colorful content (not just performances, but outreach materials, discussions with artists, and more) which cracks open the world of classical music in a way that invites and guides new listeners to enjoy it and explore it.
No one can say with validity that they "hate" classical music, because in 400 or 500 years of musical history there is something that speaks to everyone's taste and human experience. This music is timeless and without border. It's our responsibility to find approachable, attention-grabbing ways of sharing classical music with the world, while never diluting the quality of music.
I'm excited for the future of classical music, and I feel my generation is suited to be a great emissary of this and many other art forms. So don't wait. If you love classical music, find the most effective way that you can to fulfill the responsibility we have, and do it. Write a blog. Share classical music with friends. Present performances. Don't stop.
Check-out the full scene from La La Land here: